Am I Overparenting My Child on the Autism Spectrum?

Your parenting style: helicopter, snowplow, or what is actually needed?

You know what it takes to parent a child on the spectrum. You do this parenting gig every day. You know it is a bigger role than most parents will ever face and includes extra encouragement, extra reminders, extra appointments, less sleep, less personal time, and, as an added bonus: additional criticism about how you parent.

Am I Overparenting My Child on the Autism Spectrum?

Let’s sort out what you need to do as a parent, what other parents might see/say, and how you can adjust as your child grows. Let’s start with some facts I bet we can all agree upon:

  • Your child needs more help than most other children. You will have more contact with teachers and school staff, more contact with medical providers, and more contact with therapists of all stripes.
  • You will need to set up social opportunities and playdates and provide guidance during these events. You will need to do this longer than most other children will require.
  • You will develop amazing skills related to anxiety and stress management, and you will be the touchstone for your child. You will be able to read and comfort your child better than anyone else. You have a necessary role in your child’s life.
  • You may need to accompany your child to appointments for more years than other children require. You may be more hands-on as your child transitions to work/college/dating.
  • You will change your parenting style over time. You know this. You already do this, but maybe don’t see it happening. But you do actually change how you parent.

Here is where the (unsolicited, maddening, inappropriate) criticism comes in. You are sometimes criticized for your role in your child’s life. Others fail to understand what your child needs. And, if we are being honest, sometimes you “overparent” because not doing so results in meltdowns, high anxiety and stress, and some other things you are actively trying to avoid.

Sometimes, you might accidentally be guilty of not updating your parenting style on the right schedule. That said, other parents just don’t get it. You might get labeled as a “helicopter” or a “snowplow” parent. Let’s try to avoid actually being a helicopter or snowplow and keep you on track for providing necessary levels of support!

Helicopter parents

Parents are called this when they “hover” over situations, failing to let their children grow new skills, increasing anxiety for those situations, and keeping their children somewhat stuck or delayed.

  • Anyone can be a helicopter parent—you don’t need to be parenting a child on the spectrum for this to occur! Articles in major news outlets are routinely published regarding parents “overparenting” and sending unprepared children off to college (ahem, with parents in tow, because…that is what helicoptering looks like).
  • BUT your child actually needs extra support. Check-in with yourself frequently: are you providing necessary support, or accidentally hovering? As your child matures and develops new skills, you either get to drop back or provide support for new goals. Don’t abandon your post, but do update your expectations and skills. Consider if you get to access a touch more personal time!

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Snowplow parents

A step above and beyond, these parents push obstacles out of the way for their children. Never mind hovering while their child fills out a job or college application, these parents just “take care of those pesky details” and fill out the forms in their child’s stead.

  • Again, anyone can be a snowplow parent. I just heard about a parent who completed the med school application for a child. (What?! I don’t want that person as my doctor if he/she can’t finish a med school application!)
      • Breathe a moment: I’m not throwing you under the snowplow! But is there any chance you accidentally over-perform for your child, creating a different problem?
  • BUT your child actually needs a model: your child needs to see a completed job application to see what needs to be done, or how long it takes. Once again, check-in with yourself: if your child needs this level of support, might we need to roll the goals back a touch to when the child was more independent and start fresh from that place? Are your goals a bit too high or advanced if snowplowing is necessary? If so, just readjust your goals and keep moving forward!

You know what I’m talking about. You have been criticized. And I’m with you: the critics can just go pound sand. They can zip it when your child is in Target, having a meltdown, and you just want to do your job as a parent and move on.

But also, that criticism hurts a bit, because most parents have a flash of query: could it be true? Could they be missing the mark as a parent and holding their child back?

The best solution to managing all the criticism (internal and external) is to frequently check in with yourself. We both know your parenting skills were put in place for a reason.

Are those specific skills still necessary? (When I hear resistance to that question in my office, I generally ask, “Are you still giving your child candy for peeing in the potty? Then you CAN update your skills!”) Take the challenge, then consider: can you modify your skills? Can you outsource some responsibility? Can you reclaim any precious minutes for yourself as your child learns to fly his/her own helicopter?

This article was featured in Issue 99 – Navigating Relationships With Autism

Rachel Bédard

Rachel Bédard,PhD is a licensed psychologist practicing in Fort Collins, Colorado. She uses a strengths based approach and her clients note she has the ability to help them laugh about even the most stressful or embarrassing events in life. Dr. Bédard has co-written two books with her favorite Speech Language Pathologist, Mallory Griffith. Their most recent book is You’ve Got This!: The Journey from Middle School to College, As Told by Students on the Autism Spectrum and Their Parents. Learn more about Dr. Bédard and the collaborative books on her website www.drrachelbedard.com and thesociallearningproject.com

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